Lawyers think about things in somewhat discrete units called matters. No one has a formal definition of matter we all must use, but we all know them when we see them. A lawsuit is a matter, a contract is a matter, a policy is a matter.
We have, of course, managed to confuse this neat world by using “matter” indiscriminately at times. If you do a lot of over-the-phone counseling for a client, your system may show “Grady Counseling” as a matter. We also collect things, like all the work necessary for company A to buy company B, into a matter we call “A Acquisition of B.” This matter includes many contracts and other documents, counseling activities, and other tasks.
When we talk about matters which include multiple tasks—that is, when we refer to matters as collections of tasks rather than discrete tasks—we create the possibility and usually the reality of a networked system. “A Acquisition of B” includes contracts and other documents, some of which are based on templates taken from “X Acquisition of Y.” These matters are now linked through a common document template, the asset purchase agreement template.
Active law practices have lots of networking, or linking, because templates get used often. I may have a standard form or motion I use in litigation, a basic form of will, or a standard ERISA 401k plan document. The more often I use it, the more networking affects my system even if I modify it for each particular use.
We can think of each template as a module that gets used and re-used in our network. That module addresses one thing. But, we can plug the module into many situations which need the one thing. Using the module stops us from re-inventing the wheel each time we need whatever the module covers. Using the example above, you would not want to draft an asset purchase agreement from scratch each time you had a client making an asset purchase. You use a template (the module) which allows you to customize the basic template.
The Modular Office
Although programmers have used modules for a long time, certain of the key programs most lawyers use are not modularized when viewed from the user’s perspective. The most famous programs comprise the Microsoft Office Suite—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, and OneNote. Office (in one of its many forms) has about 1.2 billion users so anything involving Office could have a massive impact.
Microsoft has explained many times that the organization’s focus is moving toward the cloud and mobile computing. Neither is a surprise as these are overwhelming trends in the tech industry. The interesting note here is that Microsoft also plans to modularize Office. What does this mean?
Start with how you work today. If you want to write a document, you open Word. If you want to crunch numbers, you open Excel. And if you want to tell a story, you open PowerPoint. Behind the scenes, these and the other Office applications share data and processing modules, but to the user they are three separate programs. With the evolution of mobile computing, things get a bit more complicated because some of these applications are easier to use in the desktop world and some work just fine on a smartphone.
Microsoft’s vision involves looking at the “problem” from the user’s perspective and re-defining how the applications work based on what the user wants to do. One example given by the executive vice president of Microsoft’s Applications and Services Group is the post-meeting distribution task. After a meeting, you need to circulate the notes and PowerPoint deck from the meeting to the attendees. Doing this task today would involve using parts of different applications. Tomorrow, in Microsoft’s view, you could simply ask (orally) your computer to do the task. It would know the meeting, the PowerPoint, and the notes and send an email (via Outlook) of the relevant documents to the meeting participants.
Modularity and the Augmented Lawyer
Microsoft’s focus on the modular Office product takes us in the direction of what I call the “augmented lawyer.” This lawyer combines human skills and computer capabilities to deliver solutions to client problems. Augmented lawyers look for ways to combine the best of what computers can do and the best of what humans can do to find higher quality, lower cost, and more timely solutions to client problems.
The augmented lawyer could use the new form of Office to accomplish many tasks faster and with better quality. Assembling a motion for summary judgment might happen when the lawyer asks the computer to assemble the various parts into an e-filing document. Quality increases, because each time we take the human side down and bring the computer side up we have an opportunity to reduce mistakes (when we don’t get better quality, we typically had a process design issue not a computer problem).
Modularity is another way of talking about disaggregation. At the macro level, we can disaggregate projects into tasks and operations. At the next level, we can disaggregate tasks and operations into components done by humans and ones done by computers. As we disaggregate and automate (again, putting aside our mistakes in re-designing the process), we make improvements. Each improvement may seem small, but over the course of days, weeks, and months these small improvements can mean the difference between a viable practice and one that is too inefficient to survive.
Modularity is Coming to Legal Services
Lawyers who have not already done so need to think about modularity in their practices. Having lawyers in a firm or law department continuously repeating what others have done does not add value. When several lawyers, each sitting in his or her own office, review and revise contract terms that that have been beaten to death by generations of lawyers, clients get poorer and lawyers get richer but value is not created. Lawyers’ desire for autonomy needs to become subservient to clients’ desire for for improvement.
One of the early hallmarks of becoming an effective augmented lawyer will be adopting the modularity concept. Lawyers, firms, and departments that do so will see significant efficiencies and quality improvements, and most likely many other benefits. For those who move first, it will give them many opportunities and a significant lead over their competitors. The danger of being the first-mover and choosing Betamax over VHS exists, but only for those who act by tying themselves to an inflexible structure. Another hallmark of the successful augmented lawyer will be avoiding the urge to become inflexible.
Microsoft’s vision is one example out of many about where software is headed. Law firms and departments have tended for many years to prefer enterprise systems or network systems that, once installed, are difficult to adapt to rapidly changing worlds (and expensive). While the future always is murky, focusing on modularity in both computer systems and legal practice design will enable lawyers, firms, and departments to move quickly and focus on client needs rather than face the titanic task of changing course every year (or less) in the new, competitive, legal world.